Saturday, February 28, 2009

Brookings Report Stresses Obama's role

Think tank urges Obama to act now on reversing U.S. Cuba policy

The Brookings Institution said the White House should not wait for Congress to lift portions of the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.


President Barack Obama should not wait for Congress to begin making key changes in Cuba policy, and should start by using his presidential authority to make adjustments to the U.S. trade embargo, a new report issued Thursday recommended.

The Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C., assembled a group of 19 academics, diplomats and ''thinkers'' to chart out a road map for Obama to take action on Cuba. The panel -- led by a former top U.S. diplomat in Havana -- argues that Washington's hostile rhetoric should stop, having failed to bring about changes in Cuba.

''Let's forget the hostile regime-change strategy and begin a policy of critical engagement,'' said Vicki Huddleston, the former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana who co-chaired the report. ``This means no shouting across the street at each other.''

The report, announced in Miami, comes on the heels of a series of moves that signal what some Cuba experts consider serious momentum to change Cuba policy. On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a budget bill that defunded enforcement on the Cuban family travel ban and, among other things, offered more licenses to travel to Cuba. The Senate Foreign Relations committee released a report Monday making many of the same recommendations as the Brookings panel.

Among the Brookings' U.S. Policy Toward A Cuba in Transition group's suggestions:

• Allow more ''purposeful travel'' to Cuba for American academics, artists and such.

• Review Cuba's inclusion on the U.S. terrorist nation list.

• Allow U.S. businesses to sell radios and TVs to Cuba.

• Once the Cuban government begins responding with serious human rights improvements, license more imports from Cuba and goods to be sold to the island.

''The president can do this himself,'' Huddleston said. ``It would be a big win in terms of his image, and a big win in terms of getting away from failures of the past.''

Many Cuban exile leaders -- and South Florida's Cuban-American delegation in Congress -- oppose such measures, because they believe Cuba should release political prisoners and make other human rights improvements before Washington makes any concessions. Obama, many conservatives believe, would lose bargaining power and leverage over Cuba if he starts offering Cuba perks before it makes any changes.

The report urges the president not to set ''tit for tat'' conditions for any changes he makes.

Huddleston, who has long urged normalization of relations, said many of the group's members were more conservative in their Cuba policies, but they agreed on all the recommendations. They did not agree, she said, on whether to lift the travel ban altogether.

They did agree that that authority should be put back in the president's hands.

''Engagement does not mean approval of the Cuban government's policies, nor should it indicate a wish to micromanage internal developments in Cuba,'' the report said. ``Legitimate changes in Cuba will only be made by Cubans.''